Celebrate life as you muse over
"So many people died in the
Kanchanaburi area under administration of the Japanese command that you
owe it to yourself and the rest of humanity to enjoy yourself as best
you can here. Honor the fallen whilst here by avoiding Japanese
restaurants and romances with Japanese individuals. If married to
a Japanese person, at least go celibate during your time in Kanchanaburi
like the imprisoned did."
Kanchanaburi has secured a place for itself
on the map by being an administrative center for Japanese railway
designs. Had the railway been the world's first high speed train,
no one would have bothered making a movie in 1957 called The Bridge
On The River Kwai and Thailand would now be the beneficiary of high
speed rail links that would get one from Chiang
Mai to Bangkok in a couple of hours instead of, at worst case, a
It's a lot
more fun to ride the railway as a passenger than build it as a
This was a different kind of railway design and no less
ambitious for its time. The Japanese had wrested
control of Burma from the British, and they had also taken
over Thailand. Not officially, mind you.
Officially, Thailand had let the Japanese waltz on in and
set up bilateral relations most favorable to the Japanese.
Japanese forces in Burma needed sushi, sashimi, salmon skin
hand rolls, sake, Japanese furniture, the latest pop novel,
and whatever else it is Japanese soldiers in Burma back then
wanted. Up to 1942, the resupply had to be done
by sea, making Japanese ships vulnerable to allied submarine
attacks. The Japanese, ever the innovators well before
the Sony era to come later, hatched a plan to build a
railway from Rangoon (Burma's capital) to Bangkok.
It's a task more easier said than done, as the railway would
have to journey through mountainous jungle terrain.
But the Japanese ain't quitters, no sirree. Executing
ambitious engineering projects is made that much more
feasible when you've got not cheap, but free Asian laborers
(Chinese, Tamil, Indonesian) plus allied prisoners of war,
mainly British, Dutch, and Australians, whose salaries could
be rounded down to 0 yen per hour. Extraneous costs
could be kept ultra low by barely feeding the construction
workers and providing almost nil in the way of medicine.
Those who lacked the vigor and vim to build were introduced
to the Reaper. In a way, you can see the
formation of the outsourcing model we use today: find
cheap, preferably free, labor wherever you can and if
they're not performing or performing at too high a cost,
make those workers redundant and set up shop with a new
Many of Kanchanaburi's current attractions are echoes of the
Japanese presence in Kanchanaburi during the war.
Hellfire Pass, one of the most treacherous cuttings on the
Death Railway, remains a helluva place to go have a picnic.
No one cares nowadays if you're picnicking with a Japanese
or drive here in a Toyota. The Allied War Cemetery is
full of Dutch, British, and Australian graves, the result of
a Japanese customer service promise to the prisoners of war
to take care of them, all right The
JEATH War Museum is an acronym of Japan, England, America,
Thailand, and Holland. JAUNT would've been technically
more accurate, standing for Japan, America, United Kingdom,
Netherlands, and Thailand. With the JEATH name,
England gets full credit while Scotland, Wales, and Northern
Ireland are ignored; Holland likewise steals the show as the
other ten provinces of the Netherlands are assumed not to
exist. The museum isn't too kind in describing the
Japanese attention to medical details, which amounted to
using the prisoners as free laboratory experiments.
So Is Kanchanaburi All
Mourn for the dead.
They did not die pleasurably of a cocaine overdose.
These were soldiers drafted to fight a war in circumstances
they had no control over. Politicians start wars.
Average citizens are the ones who die in them.
your moment of silence, LIVE IT UP. You're still
alive. Revel in it and enjoy the rest of
Kanchanaburi's attractions like I did.
The River Kwai, known as the Khwae Noi in Thailand, is
famous. We all know that. The greatest variety
and most economical tourist accommodation is located here.
River houses, sort of house rafts on water, are a common
sight in these parts. Sleep in one. Let the
calming influences of the water nurse you to sleep.
At the time I visited the area, over a 10-day period in
late 2006 and early 2007, the place wasn't even well
touristed. The main street near the river was bare,
bars empty. A few scaliwags and moochers of
both sexes plied the streets looking to make themselves of
service without providing any. My brother went back in
2009 and said the place had undergone further construction,
much like the rest of the country, destroying some of the
charm the town had possessed. The town of Kanchanaburi
away from the street near the river was very much a local
Thai town in every respect in those days and likely still
I rented a motorbike and drove the 215 km to
Sangkhla Buri on the border of Burma. That's as far as
the road goes, to Three Pagodas Pass. At that
time, the border was open. You passed a USD 10 or THB
500 note to the border guard, and you were allowed to cross
over the border to the cowtown of Payathonzu for the day.
No passport stamps, no bureaucratic b.s.
some of the best Kanchanaburi and its environs have
to offer (from l to r): The Allied
War Cemetery; Doug hiking around Hellfire Pass; the
Hindad Hot Springs 130 km from Kanchanaburi,
discovered by a Japanese soldier during the Second
World War -- too bad the POWs never got to dip in; a
typical river raft house hotel where rooms were to
be had in 2007 for THB 400; Doug acting cool at the
Sai Yok Noi Waterfall 60 km from Kanchanaburi.
Don't be shy. Click on a picture to enlarge
There were plenty of exciting places to stop at along the way.
I visited a monastery that dopes up tigers and then lets you get snuggly
with them for a free. The Sai Yok Noi Waterfall is seen from the
main road. It's not big, it won't rank as one of the greatest
waterfalls you've ever seen, but for a quick dip and run, you'll be glad
you stopped. The contrast of the natural beauty of these falls and the
larger and more famous ones at Sai Yok Yai with the hellishness of life
for the prisoners of war at Hellfire Pass during the war is
extraordinary. It's as if Gilligan and the other castaways on
Gilligan's Island were stuck on an isle that was just a short ferry
ride away from Koh Samui.
You couldn't ask for a better setting for the Hindad Hot Springs.
It is rather unfortunate that Thais do their laundry, with non
biodegradable soap, in the river next to the springs. I enjoyed
Hindad so much that I went twice. I stopped there once on the way back by motorbike
Sangkhla Buri. I met a Thai girl there and a week or so later,
she, I, and two Australian buds who showed up in Thailand for a short
vacation drove her car
back to the springs for a day trip.
I did go on another bike trip circuit with the two Australian friends,
traveling to the tiny down of Dan Chang and to the smallish town of
Suphanburi, a unique experience for all of us at the time in that the
town lacked any sort of foreign-friendly tourism infrastructure. I don't
think much has changed. The province of Suphanburi has a
web site but it's entirely in Thai.
In and around Kanchanaburi is a difficult place to get bored. The locale
offers a nice balance of Thailand jungle scenery, Burmese border flavor,
and historical cultural attractions that non-Thais can appreciate.
Elsewhere in Thailand are magnificent chedis and temples and Buddhas,
things non Thais can gaze at in beauty but which strike no chord of
familiarity for them to care beyond a short visit. Kanchanaburi's
intersection with the Japanese and the Second World War should draw interest from
even the most museum-wary traveler.